Friday, 18 January 2008

Around Brazil – The Amazon

It’s just one of those names, isn’t it. You hear the word ‘Amazon’ and immediately think of all kinds of dramatic scenery, exotic people and odd occurrences. As far as I’m concerned it definitely lived up to the hype. I had such an amazing time travelling up the River Amazon and I will never forget it and will recommend that everyone takes a journey up the world’s mightiest river.

Perhaps it wasn’t quite how you may have been led to expect - no indigenous warriors lining the banks with blowpipes and poison darts, not many caimans or anacondas following us around, and no sign of the piranhas that aren’t anywhere near as dangerous as legend has it. All of this is a shame but never detracted from the experience. The absence of the candirú ( ) was an obvious bonus, but you can´t be too careful. The reputation of this fish induces so much fear that even going to the toilet on a boat on the River Amazon is a nervous experience. Always move from side to side, just in case. (

It didn´t stop me swimming in the river though. To the layman, swimming amongst vegetation to escape mosquitoes that have savaged every passenger on a broken-down boat in the knowledge that they´re not likely to encounter humans again for many years in that part of the river might be difficult to romanticize, but it was easy for me. I was swimming in The Amazon!

What I did experience there was a total sense of culture shock that I´d never had in other places in Brazil. The cities and beaches of the south are a little different to back home, but not amazingly so. The lifestyle of the caboclo people who live alongside the Amazon River and its various channels towards the mouth is an incredible thing to behold. Somewhere between Ilha do Marajão, with its buffalo-riding policemen, and Santarem, hundreds of houses built on stilts sit directly above the water during the wet season floods. Surrounded by half-submerged trees, the wooden dwellings are very simple, small enough to have two rooms at the most, and often with a satellite dish. This surprises some people as though the descendents of indigenous people and the colonial Portuguese shouldn´t be allowed to watch television. Buffaloes wallow in the fields to the side of the houses, boats filled almost to the point of sinking chug their way up or down through the floating trunks and grass islands that are heading towards the Atlantic.

And then the kids arrive. From the sides of the river, like one half of their ancestors attacking the other hundreds of years before, they paddle into the middle of the river in their dug-out canoes to meet the big boat. Only there aren´t any waves of arrows, just waves of little hands. They don´t try to attack, they try to attach their canoes to the back of the boat and catch a ride up the river. These tiny canoes are the equivalent of bikes, and the kids bob up and down in the swell behind the boat for fun. Even our boat dwarfed them. My jaw dropped when I saw one girl of around 4 years old paddling happily into our path like a mosquito about to be run over by an elephant. I couldn´t take a photo of her. I was literally holding my hands over my eyes and peering through my fingers, wailing. This little river veteran didn´t bat an eyelid as the prow of the boat passed within 6 inches of the front of her canoe. She smiled and waved, smiled and waved in rhythm with my pounding heart.

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